- The Washington Times - Friday, March 13, 2009

JERUSALEM (AP) - A protest tent set up outside the prime minister’s home by the family of a captive Israeli soldier has become an unofficial pilgrimage site this week, attracting Cabinet ministers, Holocaust survivors and schoolchildren from across Israel.

But not Prime Minister Ehud Olmert himself, who’s facing pressure to get the soldier released before leaving office.

Posters and bumper stickers of Sgt. Gilad Schalit decorate the tent, with a growing number of handwritten cards. The outpouring has drawn new attention to the soldier, who marks his 1,000th day in captivity next week and is at the center of efforts for a long-term cease-fire with Gaza’s Hamas rulers.

Noam Schalit, the soldier’s father, said he’s drawn strength from the hundreds of visitors.

“We expected people to come and support us, but we didn’t expect such widespread support,” he said.

His quiet personality and tireless efforts _ pressing his case with Jimmy Carter and French President Nicolas Sarkozy _ have helped the cause and turned him into an unwilling celebrity.

“I have no other alternative,” he said.

Gilad Schalit, 22, was captured by Hamas-allied militants in June 2006 in a cross-border attack that killed two other soldiers. He has not been seen since and the Red Cross has not been allowed to visit him, though Hamas has released two recorded statements from him and exchanged letters between him and his family.

In a country where military service is mandatory, Israelis have identified with the Schalits. Evening newscasts end with anchors counting the number of days he has been in captivity.

Thursday was Day 991. Visitors filing through the tent included a young couple with a baby, an elderly Holocaust survivor and elementary school students from a Tel Aviv suburb, who presented the Schalits with a poster filled with notes to the family.

“I think it’s important to cheer up Gilad’s parents. We hope he will return quickly,” said one of the students, 10-year-old Tamar Aloni.

But negotiations for Schalit’s release have been hobbled by Hamas’ demand that Israel free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange, including convicts serving time for deadly attacks on Israelis.

Israel has a long history of making lopsided deals to bring captured or fallen servicemen home. Last year, it swapped a notorious Lebanese guerrilla for the remains of two soldiers killed by Hezbollah militants, under heavy pressure from the servicemen’s families.

Schalit was captured just weeks after Olmert’s government took office and the prime minister’s failure to bring him home has clouded his three-year tenure.

Olmert has said Schalit must be freed as part of a long-term truce Egypt is trying to broker following Israel’s fierce military offensive against Hamas in January. Hamas says Schalit will only be freed as part of a prisoner swap.

With Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu set to take office as soon as next week, the Schalit family is applying heavy pressure on Olmert to work out a last-minute deal. Netanyahu takes a tough line against Hamas and the family fears that efforts to free Schalit will have to start all over.

“I sit in the tent, opposite the home of the prime minister, surrounded by the people of Israel, awash in a sea of love and support and in my heart,” Schalit’s mother, Aviva, wrote in the Maariv daily Thursday. “I do not shout. But my eyes shout and my heart roars to the country’s leaders: ‘Please, release my son!’”

Olmert spokesman Mark Regev said every effort is being made to free Schalit. “Will we be successful? No one can know.”

Olmert recently said pro-Schalit demonstrations have hurt Israel’s negotiating position by making the government look weak.

But few seem to be listening.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, whose office has been heavily involved in the cease-fire negotiations, visited the Schalits this week. President Shimon Peres, a Nobel Peace laureate, and Olmert’s wife, Aliza, also met the family.

Other visitors have included Yuval Arad, the daughter of an Israeli airman who was captured in Lebanon in 1986 and later disappeared, and the parents of Nahshon Waxman who was captured in 1994 by Palestinian militants and killed during an Israeli rescue attempt.

Schalit said he was uncomfortable with the spotlight but needs to bring home a son he fears he will no longer recognize.

“We were separated from him 1,000 days ago. We don’t know him,” he said. “He was a youth who just finished high school a few months before he was kidnapped. We don’t know what’s going on with him, what’s happened with him, what he looks like, how he behaves, how he’s managing.”

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